Michael O’Flaherty

Speaking up: Promoting adolescents’ right to freedom of expression

I was a lucky kid. Although I grew up in an era when a child was supposed to be seen and not heard, my parents encouraged me to speak up and defend my opinions. My school also made an effort to consult us, its students, about decisions that affected us – our points of view didn’t always win out but we felt respected and listened to. I have no doubt that these experiences of adolescence played both a major and positive role in shaping me as an adult.

Countless adolescents across the world are not so lucky. In school, students are expected to passively receive knowledge; at home, they may never question their elders’ views and decisions. They might have opinions, but they are not permitted to share them. Their publications are censored and Internet access is blocked. Many adolescents are allowed no role in the shaping and development of their own communities and societies; politicians and other leaders either ignore them or penalize outspokenness. Things are often far worse for girls than boys. Young members of marginalized and vulnerable groups fare worst of all.

Muzzling the voices of children is often no more than the routine and thoughtless maintenance of inherited, long-standing practice. Occasionally, it is justified on the basis of traditional, cultural and even religious practice or belief. Sometimes, it is a manifestation of hatred or fear of those who challenge the status quo, or who are just different.

When one’s voice is unjustly silenced, his or her human dignity is undermined, society is impoverished and it is no exaggeration to say that democracy is threatened. This is why international human rights law is so very clear on the right of freedom of expression. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” That right is spelled out in detail in article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child makes clear that the right belongs equally to children. It also stipulates that States should “assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child.”

Of course, these rights are neither absolute nor unconditional. In the interest of ourselves, each other and society, we cannot express whatever we like wherever and whenever we wish regardless of the consequences. Incitement to racist violence, for example, can never be justified. However, the restriction of human rights requires a delicate balancing act. International law stipulates that restrictions on freedom of expression must comply with stringent tests of necessity and proportionality. As the Human Rights Committee, the body that monitors the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, once put it, “the relation between right and restriction, between norm and exception, must not be reversed.”

In practice, the actual meaning of children’s freedom of expression was greatly clarified in 2009 with the publication by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the body that monitors the Convention on the Rights of the Child, of a General Comment on the meaning of article 12 of the Convention. The Committee recognized that the Convention establishes the right of children and adolescents to actively participate in any process that affects them: “[the inclusion of] children should not only be a momentary act, but the starting point for an intense exchange between children and adults on the development of policies, programmes and measures in all relevant contexts of children’s lives.” The Committee recognized the need for these “intense exchanges” not only in the home and school, but also in alternative care, the health sector, play, sports and cultural affairs. It emphasized the importance of hearing the voices of children for the resolution of public emergencies and to combat violence and end conflict. It called for the expression of these voices on the local, national and international stages.

The full extent of the right of freedom of expression will soon be further clarified with the publication of yet another General Comment, this time by the Human Rights Committee, on the meaning of article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This long-awaited guidance will provide us with a detailed understanding of the application and scope of article 19 in the light of contemporary threats, challenges and opportunities. It will tackle such issues as the extent to which children’s, adolescents’ and adults’ rights to freedom of expression can be limited in defence of religious values or for the purpose of national security. It will benefit from the experience gained by the Human Rights Committee’s consideration of hundreds of country situations across the globe as well as from the views it has adopted on complaints against States submitted by individuals.

The coincidental publication of the two General Comments provides an important opportunity to re-galvanize efforts to promote the expression rights of adolescents and children worldwide. We now have a strong law-based foundation for a global campaign to wake the world up to the abuse of these rights and to the potential for change. This campaign will have to be waged on levels of law, policy, programmes and culture. It will take time and require widely varying strategies, from issue to issue and region to region. It must involve the efforts of States, community leaders, civil society, the commercial sector and international organizations. Above all, it must have the rights-holders at its heart – efforts will ring hollow if they do not involve listening to, working with and learning from the experience of adolescents and children. It is they who can best show the way so that future generations of kids can enjoy as a matter of human rights what I experienced as just good luck.

Michael O’Flaherty is a member of the Human Rights Committee. He is Professor of Applied Human Rights and Co-director of the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham.


The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.


Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.